The Coming Storm: NATO Withdrawal and Afghan Opium in Central Asia

By John Still

The topic of Afghanistan dominated the May 2012 NATO Summit in Chicago. The majority of the discussion revolved around the specifics of NATO’s withdrawal of combat troops in 2014 and the need for continuing aid, training and funding for the Afghan National Security Forces. The problem of illegal drugs was largely ignored.

This apparent lack of official concern is worrying given that the amount of opium produced in Afghanistan increased by 61 per cent between 2010 and 2011 according to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Plant diseases wiped out almost half the Afghan crop yields in 2010, leading to a price spike in 2011 which incentivised Afghan farmers to plant larger amounts of poppy. This resulted in Afghanistan producing 5,800 of the world’s total supply of 7,000 tons of opium in 2011.

While NATO’s contribution to Afghanistan’s health care system, economy and security are debatable, the organisation’s counter-narcotics efforts have only served to exacerbate an already chronic problem. The US-led intervention of 2001 empowered warlords heavily involved in the drug trade and the lack of western aid and economic reconstruction in the early 2000s once more encouraged Afghan farmers to plant poppy crops. Despite this, there are reasons to believe the effects of trafficking will worsen when NATO withdraws in 2014.

Demand for Afghan opium from the traditional Russian and Western European consumer markets is being bolstered by increasing demand from a rapidly expanding Chinese middle class. This had led to a diversification of more traditional trafficking routes. Although the traditional route for Afghan narcotics continues to run through the porous borders of Iran and Pakistan, the UNODC estimates that 30 per cent of this growing share of opium now flows through the ‘northern route’. This route sees narcotics trafficked from Afghanistan into Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan before being moved into China or Russia through Kazakhstan.

The insecurity, corruption and disease which accompanies the business of drug trafficking is particularly troublesome for Central Asia as weak governance, rampant corruption and an ever present sense of mistrust prevents these governments from undertaking meaningful counter-narcotics efforts. With 2014 looming large in the minds of many regional and international government officials, a brief look at regional efforts to date provides  little to suggest that Central Asian states will be able to contain the suspected coming increase in drugs trafficking.

Tajikistan suffers from endemic political and police corruption and shares a rugged, 800-mile long border with Afghanistan that is straddled by ethnic Tajik and Uzbek groups. Many of these groups share ethnic and tribal ties with Afghan traffickers and can move freely across the difficult-to-police Tajik-Afghan border. While drugs can be transported by Tajik or Afghan migrant labourers using mules to traverse the difficult terrain, a Tajik-Russian trade agreement allows sealed cargo containers to travel to Russia without a customs inspection, making the transport of larger amounts of opium by rail a realistic and profitable option. Gangs, tribes and warlords use the threat of instability and the promise of a slice of the profits to ensure the weak Tajik government remains compliant. This worrying situation was compounded in 2005, when Russian border troops withdrew from the Tajik-Afghan border and were replaced by poorly trained, ill-disciplined and corrupt Tajik counterparts.

Uzbekistan is a less popular route for traffickers. President Islam Karimov has proved more willing to prosecute and penalise drug traffickers than other Central Asian leaders. Better border security, by regional standards, also increases the risks for traffickers. However, like many Central Asian states, endemic corruption and state secrecy remain barriers to counter-narcotics efforts. The Uzbek government currently refuses to fully co-operate with international anti-trafficking agencies, citing reasons of national security. Moreover, with thousands of sealed shipping containers crossing the Uzbek-Afghan border each day by truck, a lack of resources as well as a lack of political will allows larger gangs to operate with near impunity.

Kyrgyzstan has the weakest central government of the Central Asian states, the government having twice been toppled by relatively small protest movements since 2005. In 2010, ethnic tensions and a lack of employment exploded into violence between ethnic Uzbeks and ethnic Kyrgyz in the south. Facing discrimination and pushed out of employment by the Kyrgyz majority, some Uzbeks have turned to trafficking, as China’s rapidly growing middle class increases the demand for opium trafficked across Kyrgyzstan’s mountainous eastern border. Focused on maintaining a fractious sense of internal stability, and lacking the oil and gas reserves of other Central Asian states, Kyrgyzstan lacks the resources to combat trafficking in any meaningful way.

Kazakhstan is roughly the same size as Western Europe. Despite having a large police force and Central Asia’s largest economy, implementing effective anti-trafficking measures across an area this size is inherently difficult. Moreover, riots in western Kazakhstan turned violent in December 2011, re-focusing President Nursultan Nazerbayev’s attention on clinging onto power rather than risking further instability by combating the well armed international groups that move drugs through Kazakhstan.

Organised crime groups dominate the Russian section of the supply chain. Possessing vast amounts of resources and high-level political connections, organisations including the Tambov network, the Tariel Oniani group and numerous Chechen groups supply both the Russian and Western European consumer markets. The geographical reach and political influence of these groups is significant. Involved in prostitution, gambling, racketeering and fraud, as well as drug trafficking, the former leader of the Tambov network, Vladimir Kumarin, was awarded lucrative petroleum contracts in 1994 by then deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, Vladimir Putin. With the highest levels of government seemingly compromised, the Russian state is unable and unwilling to confront these criminal giants.

Turkmenistan is a less attractive route for Afghan opium, and represents only a fraction of the trade passing through the ‘northern route’. Since coming to power in 2006, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has made counter-narcotics efforts a priority, bolstering border control and handing out more severe punishments to traffickers. However, ethnic ties and a long border with Afghanistan and Iran mean that Turkmenistan’s borders are not impenetrable.

Despite this range of regional and domestic problems, efforts have been made to stem the tide of Afghan opium through central Asia. The 2003 Paris Pact Initiative, the 2005 Central Asian Regional Information and Coordination Centre (CARICC) and the 2007 Triangular Initiative between Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran all aim to better facilitate intelligence sharing and cooperation across the governments, militaries, intelligence agencies and police forces of Central Asia. However, these efforts are limited to supporting the counter-narcotics efforts of Central Asian states. With numerous continuing border disputes, mistrust, a lack of resources and endemic corruption remaining a central feature of these states’ counter-narcotics efforts, there is justified concern that, although NATO efforts to control the supply of opium from Afghanistan since 2001 have not been effective, opium production and trafficking look set to increase significantly after NATO combat troops withdraw in 2014.


This article first appeared on Defence Viewpoints


7 August 2012